A Search for Hope and Answers
In early 2012, Oraleen Johnson's ovarian cancer returned.
"You know the expression a cat has nine lives?" said Johnson. "After my ninth recurrence of ovarian cancer, I stopped counting."
But this latest diagnosis was different. Johnson, 72, was told by her long-time oncologist in Las Vegas, Nevada, that after 22 years of treatment for ovarian cancer, there were no therapies left to try.
The news was shocking, but Kent Johnson, Oraleen's husband, wasn't ready to give up hope and say goodbye to his wife of 50 years. Neither were the Johnsons' three children and 13 grandchildren.
"We had everything to win and nothing to lose, so we began a search for hope and answers," said Kent Johnson, 74, a retired nuclear engineering consultant.
The search led them from state to state to visit nationally acclaimed cancer centers to see if there was anything she hadn't tried.
Unfortunately, each medical center relayed the same sentiment: There were no treatment options left for Johnson.
Their answer finally came in late 2012 after an outside physician referred the Johnsons to the Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute.
It was at Cedars-Sinai that the Johnsons were introduced to a committed husband-and-wife team, Alain Mita, MD, and Monica Mita, MD, co-directors of the Experimental Therapeutics Program. The Mitas had newly arrived at the medical center to establish a world-class program that brought phase one clinical trials to patients.
"I immediately felt hopeful and joyful when I met the Mitas," said Oraleen. "Everyone else had turned me away, but the Mitas embraced me, encouraged me and told me I had options."
Now three years after meeting the Mitas, Johnson is participating in her third phase I clinical trial.
"There is no doubt in my mind that clinical trials have helped keep Oraleen alive," said Kent.
The Cedars-Sinai Experimental Therapeutics Program offers an array of research options to cancer patients when standard options are not available. Most studies are phase one clinical trials, screening potential drug treatments for safety and dosage levels.
"Through phase I clinical trials, we have a pipeline of options to offer patients," said Monica Mita, who also serves as associate professor in the Cedars-Sinai Department of Medicine. "Not just novel chemotherapies, but novel immunotherapies and targeted therapies."
In fact, all three of the clinical trials Johnson participated in have been targeted therapies, personalized to her genetic makeup and disease characteristics.
"Oraleen came to us because she was told she had no other options," said Mita. "We were able to offer multiple treatments and offer new hope to her and her family."
And she's not alone. Patients across the globe, and locally at Cedars-Sinai, can benefit from new treatments — thanks to the selfless individuals who participate in cancer research trials.
"Every therapy we have today to treat cancer was once part of a clinical trial," said Mita. "Since Oraleen first came to Cedars-Sinai, a new drug has been approved for ovarian cancer, which may offer her and thousands of other patients another promising treatment option."
More About Cancer Clinical Trials
A cancer clinical trial is a research study involving patient volunteers, in which a new drug, device, vaccine or other therapy is used to determine its safety and effectiveness. The main goal of a clinical trial is to find better ways to help cancer patients fight their disease.
Clinical trials are conducted in a series of steps, known as phases. Each phase is designed to answer a separate research question.
- Phase I trials: Researchers test an experimental drug or treatment in a small group of people to evaluate its safety and identify side effects. Often these trials are not disease specific and may include more than one type of cancer.
- Phase II trials: The experimental drug or treatment is administered to a larger group of people to determine its effectiveness and to further evaluate its safety.
- Phase III trials: The experimental drug or treatment is administered to large groups of people (typically in the thousands) to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it with standard or equivalent treatments, and collect information that will allow the experimental drug or treatment to be used safely.
- Phase IV trials: After a drug is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and made available to the public, researchers track its safety, seeking more information about a drug or treatment risks, benefits and optimal use.